Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Brexiters are retreating deeper into fantasy land

As the realities of Brexit become ever more apparent, Brexiters are retreating ever further into a fantasy world of their own. To take just a couple of the many examples this week we had, first, Christopher Chope MP who amongst other things railed against the EU for making membership of the single market and customs union a “pre-requisite to having a frictionless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”. This, which is becoming a recurrent complaint from the Brexit Ultras, shows a quite extraordinary degree of ignorance. It seems not to have occurred to Chope that it is the UK which is choosing to leave the single market and customs union and that means, by definition, creating a border. Once you leave a common customs and regulatory regime there have to be border checks – you can’t go an acting as if, somehow, you haven’t left those regimes. To pretend that this consequence arises from EU intransigence rather than UK choice is either to lack knowledge of the most basic of facts or to be deliberately misleading voters.

Then we had an informative report on Radio 4’s The World Tonight about the impact of Brexit on the Dutch economy and especially the port of Rotterdam. It featured various Dutch business people explaining how Brexit would hamper trade and, in particular, what it would mean for building new customs facilities at Rotterdam. One of the interviewees bemoaned the ‘lack of realism’ of the British government in its approach to Brexit. The BBC’s misguided interpretation of ‘balance’ means that any factual story about Brexit, which almost invariably shows it to have damaging effects, has to be accompanied by a Brexiter speculating about how wonderful things will be. So, on cue, Crispin Blunt MP appeared (and was subsequently reported here). His response to the report was that it showed that the EU needed us more than we need them, and that the Dutch business people featured should be lobbying the European Commission to give us a good trade deal.

So here, months and months since the Referendum campaign started, we had yet another version of the idea that German car makers (sometimes French cheese makers, Italian wine makers, even Wallonian vegetable growers but, this time, Dutch dockers) are going to swing a deal for the UK. It seems not to have sunk in that this is not going to happen because both European businesses and European politicians regard preserving the integrity of the single market as far more important than any loss of trade with the UK. In any case, and linked to Chope’s border absurdity, however good a trade deal the UK struck with the EU it is still only going to be a trade deal. Because the UK is choosing to leave the single market and customs union that deal is never going to be the same as membership and so is never, for example, going to obviate the need for new customs procedures at Rotterdam. Failure to understand this runs throughout the Brexiter fantasy land, with John Redwood MP urging the CBI to lobby the EU not to impose any new barriers to trade when we leave – but it is leaving which creates the new barriers to trade. We are imposing them on ourselves, because people like Redwood think that this is a good idea. We can’t leave and yet, somehow, not leave.

All of these examples, and many more that could be given, grow directly out of the false claims made to the British electorate before the Referendum. They re-state in various ways the idea that the UK is ‘bound to get a good deal’ in which we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ (other times it is the endless re-cycling of the ‘we can trade on WTO terms’ myth and, associated, of the discredited Economists for Brexit forecast). For all that has happened since the vote, Brexiter thinking really has not advanced beyond that. In effect, they are still fighting the Referendum and still acting as if they have not won it and are now responsible for the consequences. The only difference is that as these absurd propositions are shown to be false the Brexiters – using their own peculiar anti-logic – take that to be evidence that the EU is ‘punishing’ us and that this ‘proves’ Brexit is the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, this small group of Brexit ultras continues to drive another fantasy world which, unfortunately, turns out to be our sovereign parliament. In search of their approval, the government now hopes to fix Brexit day in statute. Doing so is meaningless both because it is already fixed not by statute but by Article 50, and because the statute could always be overturned by new legislation anyway. It has no conceivable benefit in terms of the negotiations – quite the reverse, since even if it did have meaning its meaning would be to voluntarily reduce the UK’s freedom of action. It serves only as a symbol to garner the cheers of the more bovine of the Brexiters. On the other hand, a symbolic sop was offered to the Tory ‘pragmatists’ in the form of a vote on the final deal. But even as a sop that was stillborn as it emerged that were the deal to be voted down there would be a no deal Brexit. Despite the mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, everyone knows that the truth is that ‘any deal is better than no deal’, so the promised vote is meaningless. As it had to be, since a meaningful vote would offend the Ultras who must at all costs be pandered to, at least unless the ‘pragmatists’ in parliament are willing to face them down.

The tragedy in all this lies in the repeated terms – fantasy, absurdity, meaningless – that characterise what is currently going on. None of it is in any serious way contributing anything whatsoever to Brexit. It is completely detached from the damaging economic realities that are already happening as a result of Brexit, and equally detached from the (virtually stalled) talks in Brussels. Those who hope to remain in the EU or, at least, get to a single market soft Brexit might take a tiny crumb of comfort from this. The longer the nonsense goes on, and the closer we get to the end of the Article 50 period, the greater the possibility of the Brexit Ultras being comprehensively discredited. The people who should be thoroughly alarmed are those who want, or are reconciled to, hard Brexit but want it in an ‘orderly’ form. For them, every day conducted in these fantasy terms brings us closer either to that possible retreat from hard Brexit or, much more likely, to the chaotic catastrophe of no deal Brexit.

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